Tool #2 – The Ladder of Inference

November 19, 2013 9:21 am

The Ladder of Inference” is one of my favorite tools to use with clients. It shows up in most of the leadership development classes I create and groups I work with, as it really sets the foundation for differences in perception.

I have found over the years that the first step in self-actualization is realizing, very simply, that other people don’t think and behave like you. Rocket science, I know. However, many people have yet to determine why others can’t see the world just like they do. When you use a tool like “The Ladder,” you give yourself options and choices prior to acting on the same unconscious impulse that always guides you.  See how many “Ladders” you go every day!

 Where did it come from?  The “Ladder of Inference” was first theorized by Chris Argyris and was later used by Peter Senge in his book The Fifth Discipline.
 What is its purpose?  Its purpose is to show the human thinking process that leads to a decision or action.  By following it step-by-step, we can dissect how we think and create beliefs that may or may not limit us.
 How does it work? It is a self-awareness tool that can be used to map decisions or actions.  Someone can use it as an “after action” review or prior to taking an action.
How do we use this with clients? I usually introduce the topic and explain how “The Ladder” works – the theory and methodology. I then facilitate a group activity that allows participants to take an action/decision from the past and work through how they got to that action/decision. When a client becomes aware that they had a choice in behavior, emotion, and action at every “rung” on the “ladder,” then they are empowered to make different choices next time.We have used this in the following ways:

  • Day 1-2 of Leadership Development Programs to set the stage for new behaviors or ideas that may surface; and why others may have different perceptions
  • Individual coaching sessions

Once the language is introduced into a client system, it becomes easy to hold each other accountable for behaviors or actions. You can hear people within the organization say things like, “You need to come back down the ladder, because you just made a big assumption about XYZ that isn’t necessarily true,” or “What ladder did you go up to get to that conclusion?” Clients also learn how to take personal accountability for the assumptions they make and “check out” with others before taking actions that may be based on inaccurate data.

Ladder of Inference
Here is a short video on YouTube by Ed Muzio that explains Argyris’ Ladder of Influence.

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